There’s Hope for Mayberry Yet!

Hi Folks! Talk about a beacon of hope.  A Hollywood ending! Success! Get this:

As you may recall, a few years back, a mom from small-town Mississippi wrote to this blog in a quandry. After teaching her 10-year-old son the route to soccer, she’d let him walk there — less than a mile — by himself. On that first time out, a cop picked him up, scolded it wasn’t safe, and tracked down the mom. He told her  he’d received “hundreds” of calls to 911 about the boy and that he could book her for “child endangerment.”

That mom was Lori LeVar Pierce, and that day marked a turning point. Instead of cowering in fear, she called the chief of police and asked if the town was really so dangerous a kid couldn’t walk to soccer. The chief said it was very safe and apologized for the cop’s actions. But mere facts did not calm the local paper. As it wrote in an editorial:

Once upon a time, decades ago, mothers were able to let their elementary-aged children roam free and alone.

While many, including us, look upon this halcyon time with fondness and a longing for its return, the fact remains that things are different now.  The days of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and “Leave it to Beaver” are gone.

Yeah, in large part because fearmongering media bashed them over the head.

But some people have decided not to listen to doomsday blathering anymore. Lori, for instance, became twice as determined to have her kids play outside after the  cop incident, and thus saw for herself  what her town really lacked. Sidewalks! She became an activist and  now there are sidewalks all around town, thanks to her.

But that’s not all. As of last week, even the local PAPER is changing! Check out this Jan. 25 editorial:

…we, as a community, need to use more discretion when calling 911. It seems we’ve all gotten paranoid.

If there are teenagers you don’t know walking down the street, they might just be kids taking a stroll. And odds are, if you spend much time outside or looking out of the window, you’re going to see an unfamiliar car.

Pay attention. Look out for yourself and your neighbors. But don’t always rush to call the law.

We should feel safe in our own neighborhoods, and the police play a major role in that. But they shouldn’t have to console us every time we have unsubstantiated fears. It wastes their time and our money.

Don’t give in to unsubstantiated fears? Expect to see children strolling down the street? Get to know your neighbors? Darned if Columbus, Mississippi isn’t going…Free-Range!

If a town that told its citizens “This isn’t Mayberry” back in 2009 is telling them that kids can and should be walking down the street in 2012, I gotta say: Columbus, you rock! It takes courage to reject fear.  So hi from your new friend in New York City, and hi also to Lori, who got the ball rolling…and the kids outside. — Lenore

Let's hear it for a little street life!

Why Are Parents So Scared? Ask Barry “Culture of Fear” Glassner

Hi Folks! Just read a wonderful, cogent Q&A with Barry Glassner, the author of The Culture of Fear and now the prez of Lewis & Clark University. He’s been tracking our escalating worries for over a decade and come to the same conclusions as me (he came to them first!!)  about where the fear is coming from and perhaps how to fight it. My favorite part of the interview:

Why are so many people afraid of such extreme possibilities? 

We need to be careful to distinguish how people respond to fear mongering and who is spreading the fears. If we ask why so many of us are losing sleep over dangers that are very small or unlikely, it’s almost always because someone or some group is profiting or trying to profit by either selling us a product, scaring us into voting for them or against their opponent or enticing us to watch their TV program.

But to understand why we have so many fears, we need to focus on who is promoting the fears.

What’s your advice for someone faced with “fear-filled” news? 

If I can point to one thing, it’s this: Ask yourself if an isolated incident is being treated as a trend. Ask if something that has happened once or twice is “out of control” or “an epidemic.” Just asking yourself that question can be very calming. The second (suggestion) is, think about the person who is trying to convey the scary message. How are they trying to benefit, what do they want you to buy, who do they want you to vote for? That (question) can help a lot.

It sure can. That’s why I try to ask it a lot: Are they doing this to get ratings? Are they over-scaring us about some unlikely or minor problem so they can sell us something to assuage the fear they  just created?

The problem, of course, fear also becomes an echo chamber: If TV keeps showing us abductions to garner ratings, those scary stories resonate for the average person who is NOT trying to sell anything, but has been shaken to his shoes. Now he truly believes he’s being helpful warning us, “Don’t let your kids play on the front lawn, they could be snatched!” or, “Don’t let go of your child’s hand at the store, EVER.”

How to leech the fear infection out of those folks is in part what Free-Range is always trying to figure out. Suggestions welcome! — L.

Outrage of the Week: Mom HANDCUFFED for Tardy Kids

Hi Folks — This blog, as you know, is always trying to distinguish between real threats to children and the over-hyped ones. In this case, the fear of children being neglected or falling behind has gone overboard.  The mom is due in court this morning  — Wednesday. I wish her a lot of luck, and a judge with compassion and common sense. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Here in Loudoun, VA,  I am a the mother of three little girls at an elementary school who was just ARRESTED for getting my girls late to school. After the fifth offense there was a meeting with a truant officer. We were late twice since then, which resulted in the surprise of three officers showing up on this Sat night ( 1.21.2012),  where I was literally handcuffed and brought to the Adult Detention Center to meet with the magistrate who chose to release me with a $3,000 bond promised to be paid if I fail to show up for the arraignment in a few days.  [N.B. The court date is Weds., Jan. 25.]

The charge is “contributing to the delinquency of her minor children.”  The VA code is written that after five absences the truant officer meets with parents and then works with them in cases in which students are absent without awareness and notification from a parent.  My truant officer seems to miss the rather obvious distinction between ABSENCE without a parent’s knowledge, and TARDINESS.  Our lateness has been, on average, less than ten minutes.

Considering that all four of us — the kids and me — have had medical care for disabilities (some with a diagnosis of ADHD, others with other psychological issues, which the school is very aware of),  I find it not only a waste of resources and taxpayer dollars to engage our police and courts for this, but  also an absolute failure on the part of our school to service those with disabilities with any sort of empathy and understanding. There is nothing short of animosity in their treatment of me as a mother, as if I am incompetent due to the one problem of having difficulty getting my children to school on time.

While it is debatable whether or not I am a decent mother, EVEN IF I WERE NOT it would hardly be CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR to be so imperfect. — A Virginia Mom

Lenore here again: I agree. Once we start criminalizing imperfect parents, all of us are at risk…because there are no perfect parents.  

College Student in Burning House Calls Parents — Not 911

Hi Readers: Please don’t think I’m posting this as a “blame the victim” story, as I myself don’t know if I’d keep my wits about me in a fire. The story, nonetheless, is this: A house shared by seven members of Boston University’s Sigma Alpha Mu went up in flames on Sunday morning:

BU Police Chief Thomas Robbins says his department received a call from a parent of one of the students in the apartment, whose first response was to call home. Robbins says he hopes that students learn to make their first and immediate call to 911 or to the BUPD at 617-353-2121. “We’ve got to get our number on the students’ radar,” he says. “It’s great that this person called a parent, but people in danger should call us first, then call a parent.”

I do fear that some kids may be so accustomed to calling their parents in times of distress that they don’t realize that their parents can’t solve every problem. It’s a shocking and sad reminder to teach our kids to depend on their wits and their community, not just mom and dad.

Meantime, I dearly hope the person who is in critical condition pulls through and lives a long and happy life. This story has me so sad. – L.

Call us first!

Worried About Internet Bullying & Predators? Props to Danah Boyd!

Hi Folks! Here’s a great profile of Danah Boyd, an Internet researcher who hops over hysteria to look at how young folk really use social media. I heard her speak at a Family Online Safety Institute conference, and, as the NY Times profile points out:

“She was the first to say that the teenagers at risk off line are the same ones who are at risk online,” said Alice Marwick, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft who works closely with Dr. Boyd. “It’s not that the Internet is doing something bad to these kids, it’s that these bad things are in kids’ lives and the Internet is just a component of that.”

This is something I try to remind parents about: The Interet is a lot like the real world. In fact, it IS the real world: It’s where kids hang out. Most hang out with their friends. But some kids, often the most troubled, go to where trouble congregates — chat rooms where strangers are talking about sex.  It’s like kids going to the baddest part of town. Some will, but most kids just  go to the mall.

And one of the main reasons they ARE gathering online, rather than at the mall or even — I know this sounds crazy — the PARK, is that:

“Children’s ability to roam has basically been destroyed,” Dr. Boyd said in her office at Microsoft, where a view of the Boston skyline is echoed in the towers of books on her shelves, desk and floor. “Letting your child out to bike around the neighborhood is seen as terrifying now, even though by all measures, life is safer for kids today.”

Children naturally congregate on social media sites for the relatively unsupervised conversations, flirtations, immature humor and social exchanges that are the normal stuff of teenage hanging-out, she said.

As for the fear that predators and bullies lurk everywhere on the Web, Boyd says there is no evidence that bullying is more prevalent on line than in the “real world,” nor is there any evidence that it is on the rise in either place! And predators?

“The most deadly misconception about American youth has been the sexual predator panic,” she said. “The model we have of the online sexual predator is this lurking man who reaches out on the Internet and grabs a kid. And there is no data that support that. The vast majority of sex crimes against kids involve someone that kid trusts, and it’s overwhelmingly family members.”

So basically, we have become afraid of our kids hanging out beyond the home, for fear of predators, bullies, sexual situations, etc. Meantime, we are afraid of our kids hanging out inside the home, on line, for fear of predators, bullies, sexual situations, etc. And it’s all part of the same thing: An unrealistically grim perception of anything our kids try to do on their own.

That’s why it’s so lovely to hear this honest-to-God, Harvard-sanctioned researcher point out: Things are far less ominous than we fear. Thank goodness. And thank Danah!  — L.

And We Worry About Our Kids Walking a Couple Blocks to School

Hi Folks: I don’t think I need to comment here, except to say I would be just as terrified at that one girl looks. — L.

Where Have All The Jungle Gyms Gone? Long Time Passing…

Hi Folks! Here’s a great article from the L.A. Times about one of our recurring themes: The dumbing down of playgrounds to the point where they are, well, pointless. The writer, Gale Holland, reports:

Last fall as state inspector strode into Great Beginnings preschool and declared the tree house and climbing structure too high. They would have to come down or be surrounded by extra padding.

The metal ladder to the playhouse, which had been there 30 years, could pinch the children, said Beverly Wright-Chrystal, a state child care licensing representative. Also, a log worn smooth by generations of boys and girls playing horsy and hide-and-go-seek would have to be sanded and painted because of a potential “splinter hazard,” Wright-Chrystal determined.

How have we evolved to a society that sees splinters, blood and lawsuits every where we turn? Especially in light of my hero Phillip Howard’s contention that (according to the LA Times piece) there is no data showing an increase in playground injuries or lawsuits!

We are drunk on safety and hallucinating pink liability issues. (Elephants are too big to safely be hallucinated anymore.) Time to sober up and let kids have fun. — L.